A Fair Fight: Matthew Stafford Won Detroit Lions' Job On Merit

Greg EnoSenior Analyst ISeptember 9, 2009

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 03:  Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions sets to  pass against the Buffalo Bills  at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 3, 2009 in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Occasionally, pro sports provides us with delicious irony and poetry.

Seven years ago, the Lions beamed with pride. Finally, a genuine article at the quarterback position in the second year of what would derisively and painfully come to be known as the Matt Millen Era.

The Lions would no longer be “married” to erstwhile QB Charlie Batch. The word was Millen’s, uttered shortly after arriving in town as the franchise’s savior in January 2001. From the day Matt Millen told the media that the Lions were, for the moment, “married” to Batch at quarterback, the marriage had no chance of succeeding.

Millen wanted his own man, his own quarterback to help stamp his mark on the Lions.

Joey Harrington breezed into town as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft and the Lions thought they found the quarterback they were looking for during the entire span of the Ford ownership, which began in 1964.

This week, Harrington, now a vagabond player, was cut by the New Orleans Saints—the same Saints team the Lions open with this Sunday. Around the same time, the Lions named rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford their starting quarterback.

The Matt Millen Era ended, in a way, when the Lions president was fired last fall. But it ended officially this past offseason, as the Lions released or traded one Millen-acquired player after another. The purge continued in training camp until almost nothing but a thin, brittle shell of Millen’s outhouse could be seen.

Joey Harrington’s career is on the ropes. The Saints might bring him back—they’ve done it before—but there are no guarantees. If the Saints don’t come through for him, it’s  questionable whether another NFL team will sign Pal Joey.

Seven years ago, in a game at Ford Field against the Saints, ironically, I saw Harrington throw some footballs which ended up nestled into the arms of Lions receivers—some 30 or 40 yards downfield. The balls were feathered, sometimes zipped. But with accuracy, either way.

“Finally!” I remember screaming at the TV. “A quarterback in Detroit!”

It wasn’t the first time I called it wrong, and it won’t be the last.

I hope this isn’t another one of those times where I’m wrong, because I’m telling you that Matthew Stafford has the best arm of any quarterback I’ve ever seen in Detroit.

At first blush, that might not seem like a very powerful statement. The Lions haven’t sent a QB to the Pro Bowl in nearly 40 years, after all.

So I guess I’ll switch that up a bit. Stafford has one of the five best arms of any QB, anywhere, who’s entered the league in the 21st century. At least.

I’ve written, many times, that the Lions would be best served to keep Stafford on the sidelines, ball cap firmly on head, clipboard firmly in hand. I fretted over the offensive line’s ability to protect the team’s prized signal caller.

But the decision has been made. Stafford has beaten out Daunte Culpepper, so why yammer on about all my concerns at this point?

Congratulations to The Kid. He exhibited a keen grasp of the offense, supreme confidence, and a je ne sais quoi that successful NFL QBs need—that ability to shrug off mistakes and move onward, among other intangibles.

I wish him well. Truly.

As for Culpepper, he released a statement through the Lions yesterday that was drenched in class and professionalism. He, too, wished Stafford well. And though terribly disappointed, Daunte maintained that he will be right there for the rookie, whenever needed.

Daunte Culpepper proved during training camp that he can, once again, be a productive quarterback in the league. I always suspected that he was playing for his next job, anyway. He’s not stupid. The future in Detroit is Stafford. Culpepper was using the Lions as an audition for future NFL work.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It was a win-win situation, really.

The Lions held a spirited competition, both pushing the rookie and providing incentive to the veteran. The Lions won because they got their rookie ready in a hurry. Stafford won because he’s the starter. And Culpepper won because he proved his worth to potential employers after Detroit.

Oh, and the fans win, because they want to see The Kid sooner rather than later.

Matthew Stafford is the Lions’ future. Not sure you could have said that about Pal Joey Harrington, back in the day. The entire weight of the franchise rests on Stafford’s strong right arm, while Harrington was supposed to be merely a piece of the puzzle Matt Millen was cutting with his poorly-calibrated jigsaw.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz has a team that’s not going to the playoffs. Not even close. I suppose he figures that the best man for the job is Stafford, so why wait? It’s not like a few blown games with a rookie QB—if it comes down to that—is going to make much difference in the standings.

Stafford can, if this work according to plan, practically obliterate, with one giant sweep of the eraser, the ghoulish memories of Jeff Komlo and Chuck Long and Andre Ware and Batch and Harrington. Not to mention about 50 others who’ve stuck their hands under center during the wacky Bill Ford ownership.

I wish him well. The best man won the job.